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Travels with Pavel: 15 February 2005

I wonder how they let me into Cambodia by land. The Thai embassy in Phnom Penh – actually the guard at the counter who wouldn’t even let me in to the main building – said that unless I was resident in Cambodia, I could not get a tourist visa to return to Thailand overland. As an Indian, I could only get a visa on arrival at the airport. I had to fly back to Thailand, as the official at the Indian embassy had told me. Pavel, of course, could walk on his hands or pole vault across for all the Thais cared. So that’s another lot of US dollars that I would have to spend to keep the Indian flag flying high in Taipei instead of in prison in Phnom Penh.

Gandhi and Me in Phnom Penh

Pavel came up with the idea of arriving exactly on the 24th at Bangkok so that I wouldn’t have to pay visa fees and proceed directly to the transit area and fly to Taipei. With my talent for attracting trouble, I’m likely to end getting lost again and with a 2-hour window to boarding my flight to Taipei, I knew I was likely to do everything within my power to cut things as fine as possible. Just the way it’s always been with me.

We are also extremely short of money. If the present situation does not call for a lot of prayers from the believer in the team, I don’t know what does. Are things as bad as they look? Or is it all just perfect?

Watching the Tom Hanks starrer, The Terminal about things that can go wrong with visas and at airports – Pavel had very considerately asked the guesthouse manager to screen it for my exclusive benefit – it was hard to miss the fact that in the end, it was only the Indian (Gupta, in this case) that got socked.

Travels with Pavel: 7 February 2005

So Laos didn’t happen. All the polite pleading, trying to say I’m the ‘good guy’ – ie, an Indian with a valid passport and a good education – didn’t work. Proceeded next to the Indian embassy nearby, in high fury and ready to give my Ambassador an earful. The guard at the gate made me fill out a form, first.

I went in first and only then could I get Pavel in. Watched Zee News in silent mode for a while before a staffer with a pepper-coloured French beard – Mallu/Tamil it seemed to me – turned up to speak to me. We spoke in English, I explained my problem and got another one in return – I can’t leave Cambodia either, it seems. Except by air. There’s a good reason, I think, why Indian missions abroad have a nasty reputation among citizens and foreigners alike – no news is good news.

Cambodia-India Friendship-NIIT

Pavel and me made our way disconsolately back to Boeng Kak, decided to have a sumptuous Indian lunch at a South Indian restaurant. The restaurant is run by Sreenivas from Hyderabad, who’s also lived in Nagpur for many years. Language of communication this time, is Hindi. Sreenivas is the Indian chef in the only genuine “Indian” restaurant in the area – the other two are Pakistani and the rest are Cambodian. Sreenivas hasn’t been home in nearly four years. Why? “Arre yaar, behenchod phas gaya na!” (“Well man, sister-fucker, I got screwed.” – is the translation most approximating the feeling and content). He was cheated by an agent in Mumbai of several hundreds of thousands of rupees. After being promised a job as a chef in a Tokyo 5-star hotel, he was left stranded in Ho Chi Minh City instead, as the agent skipped town. Srinivas then spent two years in Vietnam working at a Pakistani (Indo-Pak war, anybody?) restaurant and another one named “Urvashi,” before arriving in Cambodia to improve his fortunes.

His clientele today included another Indian, from Tamil Nadu who said he was just traveling around Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Cambodia and back. We fell to talking in Tamil about the miseries of being an Indian national trying to obtain a visa for traveling in the region. Another of Sreenivas’ guests spoke shudh Hindi, was basically from Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh but had lived a long time in Uttar Pradesh, taught Sanskrit and Philosophy at the Sihanouk University for Buddhist Studies. Had been here for six years and spoke Khmer well as well read and wrote the language.

I am trying to find a good thing about not being able to travel to Laos. I’m still pretty disgusted and feel sorry that Pavel’s stuck with me as well. Finally, got to reading one of the writers in The Road to Damascus. She writes several things more clearly than I understand them in my head. I sense the truth in her writings but as a part-time Christian, I am still too attached to the world to let things go or be. Else why would I not be more at peace with myself, despite the setback? Instead, I’m composing a mighty missive in my head to the Indian Foreign Minister, which I doubt he’ll ever read, even if I put it down in bits and bytes, let alone act upon.

So now, no Laos and trouble expected ahead. “For truly, I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Faith.